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  • When my grandpa, Hedley, and his best friend Leonard joined up in 1917 as teenagers they didn't know each other - would never have met without Archduke Rudolf and the Royal Flying Corps. Two grammar school boys, hardworking, ambitious, with a romantic streak a mile wide. My grandpa was the son of a barber. Uncle Len was marginally posher.

    Uncle Len knew he should never be allowed to fly a plane. He was colour blind. He should not have been in the RFC but he had bluffed his way through the medical. When he was shown the red/green cards and asked to identify the number he just said any number at random, hoping the medical officer wouldn't check... and he didn't. “Eight – three – four” said Uncle Len confidently and loudly.

    I wish I knew more about their time in the RFC, but I don't. I never asked.

    So we now skip to the pair of them catching the flu and being hospitalised for a time, then, after convalescence, going through the medical once again. There was an error in the system and instead of taking the short, convalescent medical, they did the full admission medical.

    Grandpa was pronounced unfit and invalided out. Len, along with all the other tests, was obliged to sit the colour-blindness test again, and unfortunately, this time, the medico was paying attention.

    “Six – three – ten” said Uncle Len as loudly and confidently as before. But he was profoundly red/green blind and was unable to tell a red carpet from a lawn. The medico noticed. And so, off went Leonard to the trenches.

    Details are sketchy. Men who were in that war were never keen to talk about it. All I know for sure is that he was wounded going over the top, and lay 36 hours in no man's land before a stretcher could reach him. He nearly lost his legs, and walked the rest of his life with a limp.

    The rest of his life. He went to teacher training college with Hedley (it was in Chelsea, they had the time of their lives), married Dorothy (no issue), collected stamps, specialising in West Indian packets and becoming a bit of an authority. Dorothy was marginally posher than Leonard (I have her silver spoons) and Grandma was prettier than Dorothy. Len was my mother's godfather.

    Leonard and Dorothy went around the world on cargo ships, and always saw the latest musicals. My Grandma never forgot going to see Showboat with them. Then Dorothy died and Len was bereft. He still travelled up to London to see the odd show, and sometimes I went with him, though being an intellectual snob I would have preferred the opera. We saw Evita and A Chorus Line. I loved him.

    Len became old and incontinent and was too proud to tell anyone. He used to dry his urine-soaked sheets on the electric fire. Sometimes he was cold. The garden went to rack and ruin.

    Then he died.
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